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  Suddenly, Last Summer Family Plot
Year: 1959
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Stars: Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, Montgomery Clift, Albert Dekker, Mercedes McCambridge, Gary Raymond, Mavis Villiers, Patricia Marmont, Joan Young, Maria Britneva, Sheila Robbins, David Cameron, Rita Webb
Genre: Horror, DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Dr Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift) has been called from Chicago to a New Orleans state mental hospital to perform the tricky procedure of lobotomy, but he finds the conditions lacking and not to his satisfaction. However, in his capacity as psychiatrist he may be pressed into service with another brain operation soon as he has to visit Mrs Venable (Katharine Hepburn), the aunt of a patient who is trying to persuade the medical staff to use the procedure on her niece. He goes to see her at her home, and is invited into her presence as if she were royalty, but although she is rich and has promised the hospital a new building, how far does her influence reach?

There was a time when Tennessee Williams plays were being adapted for the big screen as if they were going out of fashion, which they eventually did. One of the most controversial of these film versions in its day was Suddenly, Last Summer, which although like pretty much all of the movies taken from his works was toned down from the stage, still managed to make it as plain as it could considering the censorship at the time that there was a homosexual theme to this tale, even if it did treat the orientation as a deviancy that could lead to further unsavouriness such as whoring and incest. And, as we discover at the end, worse.

Katharine Hepburn is in her element here as a matriarch who has always got her way and thinks the world of her poet son Sebastian; unfortunately for her (and him, of course) he is dead before the story begins, victim of some mysterious occurence that happened to him while on holiday with her niece Catherine (Elizabeth Taylor). That opening half hour where we and Cukrowicz are introduced to Mrs Venable is a masterclass of scene stealing, and with Clift, post-accident but still suffering, and obviously uncomfortable in his role as an upstanding voice of reason, Hepburn walks all over him in the acting stakes.

However, she has a rival for the audience's attention when Taylor appears, perhaps surprising for many because in spite of her Oscars she is rarely regarded as an acting heavyweight, relying on her beauty to capture the eye. But she is certainly better here than she was in Butterfield 8, and portrays Catherine's brittleness ideally as she nervously puffs on a cigarette or cottons on to her family's plans for her so they can secure Sebastian's fortune left to her in their will. While you could argue that director Joseph L. Mankiewicz uses Taylor to keep you watching in a similar way that Sebastian used Catherine to grab male company, at least the director's intentions are more honourable.

This being a Mankiewicz film, there are acres of talk (leavened by Jack Hildyard's engrossing black and white photography), but that chatter was scripted not only by Williams but by Gore Vidal as well, a collaboration which might make you expect a camp classic for its day. However, this is a horror film too, and while there are elements that come across as swooningly overwrought, there's a nastiness to Catherine's plight and what happened to her cousin that still have the desired effect. All the way through there are references to what we don't know yet, how Sebastian met his demise, as when Catherine accidentally ends up in the male half of the asylum and is crowded, or when Mrs Venable feeds her carnivorous plants and speaks of baby turtles being eaten by birds. If that were not macabre enough there's the Gothic chills of the heroine's family wishing to make her dull-witted for the rest of her life so that no awkward questions will ever be asked. There's something sick about Suddenly, Last Summer, but whatever it speaks to is something left for you to ponder. Music by Malcolm Arnold and Buxton Orr.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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